Serpentine Lake Loop
Total Distance: 20 km
Duration: 2 days (3 or more is recommended to explore the area)
No. of Portages: 7
Total Port. Distance: approx. 2700 m
Level of Difficulty: Novice (one long portage of 1500m)
In the summer of 2018, both of my daughters were playing provincial-level soccer. My wife was busy with her work for the majority of the summer., which meant that dad, the teacher with his summer's off, was the primary chauffeur driving his young soccer players all over the province. I enjoyed watching my girls play, but it made canoe trips difficult. There was either a practice or game every night and many weekends we were away on a tournament. I was also in the middle of extensive house renovations and needed a break from it.
By the third week of July, I was itching to get out for a paddle. I had two days in that week without driving duties, so in a hasty and last-minute decision, I decided to do the Serpentine Lake Loop in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park for a quick overnighter -- hardly a leisure tour, but I wanted to get out into the backcountry.
Day 1 - Anstruther Lake to Serpentine Lake
Having booked my site online late the night before, I woke up and scrambled together food and necessities for the trip. I was excited because I managed to snag the island site on Serpentine. There must have been a cancellation.
I reached the Anstruther Lake put-in just before noon. It was a cloudy day and looked like it was threatening to rain. Paddling north up the large expanse of Anstruther, I was getting a lot of wind coming in from the west and was forced to tack here and there across the lake to remain on course.
Coming up to the short, but steep, portage into Rathbun, I saw a rather large collection of canoes at the take-out. There wasn't a lot of room to take out there and I had to wait in my canoe for the formidable group of young couples to haul up the very many things that they were taking on their 'wilderness' trip. I couldn't be sure, but I might have seen one of them carrying a microwave oven -- or maybe that was just my eyes playing tricks on me as they were heading up with their fourth load.
I finally managed to take out, and with just my canoe and barrel, I had to wait another 15 minutes or so at the put-in while they loaded their dishwashers and big-screen TVs...I mean...coolers. Thinking of a par 3 hole on a busy golf course, I was hoping that they would let me 'play through', but no such luck was to be had. I always marvel at people who bring so much on a backcountry trip. Why lug it around? If you need all that stuff, why not go car camping, or stay in the backyard?
Eventually, I got onto Rathbun Lake and was happily paddling into its northern bay past the red cottage on the island, even though it was now raining. I contemplated fishing for a bit, having had a good bass session on this lake with my daughter the year before, but my fishing rod was stowed away and I was anxious to get the upcoming 1500-meter portage behind me.
I cursed myself after taking off my hat, forgetting that my sunglasses were perched on it, and watched them descend into the depths of the lake after flying off my head. I'd be lying if I said that was the first time that happened. Grrr!
The portage into North Rathbun was short, but again, ascended. At the put-in, it started to feel more like wilderness with no cottages in sight. There, I ran into a couple taking out in a pair of kayaks. They told me they had been out for the better part of a week but were coming in a day early due to the storm.
"Storm? What storm?" I asked. I hadn't looked at the weather app on my phone all day in my haste to get packed and out on the water. Apparently, there was a huge storm coming in the evening. In my defence, I did check it the night before and it just showed a bit of rain, but no storm. Alas, summer in Ontario -- weather can change on a dime.
I thanked them for the heads up and pressed on -- in for a penny, in for a pound. Putting in, I paddled north out of the small weedy bay and into North Rathbun lake. There was a bushy campsite on the right that was strangely occupied. Maybe the site and the lake had more to meet the eye than upon first appearance, but I found it odd that someone booked this site rather than the empty sites I'd seen on Rathbun or on Serpentine -- prettier, larger lakes. Rounding the point, I headed east toward the big portage into Serpentine and across the rounded main bay of the lake. There, I felt like I was finally in the wilderness, escaping the cottages and cabins and eyeing the birch groves on the northern shore. Perhaps, this was the allure for the campers choosing to stay there.
The oddest thing happened in the center of the lake. Something hit my canoe. Paddling along merrily, something bumped the front of my canoe mid-stroke. It was big enough to jar the entire boat slightly. I immediately leaned over both sides to scour the lake but saw nothing. I couldn't have hit anything in this deep centre of the lake. Odd. I had read about otters living on North Rathbun. Would an otter bump a canoe? I shrugged my shoulders and made my way to the long portage into Serpentine with thoughts of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster in my head. Rathie? Hmm, just doesn't have the same ring to it.
The long portage wasn't too bad until the end where there was a steep descent down to Serpentine Lake. About halfway along, it crossed an ATV trail that headed north and passed over a large granite surface where it was easy to lose the trail. I had to veer right on the rocks slightly and walk down the other side to pick it back up.
On long portages on solo trips, I tend to sing (not well, mind you!), especially on the legs with a canoe on my head where it is difficult to see around me. I guess the thinking is it is better to warn any creatures ahead of the fact rather than surprise them. So, if you are ever on a portage and hear something that may resemble 70s Springsteen, early 90s Pearl Jam, or anything from the Tragically Hip (I know, I'm so damn Canadian!), don't worry -- it isn't a tone-deaf, singing bear, it's just a short middle-aged man trying to find the next lake.
Getting the long portage behind me, I put in and made my way down the narrow western bay of Serpentine, past the emergency site on the north shore and into the central bay of the lake. I passed site 220 on the western point of that bay and took a peek. It was a nice site but close to a shallow weedy bay just to the south. I made my way to my island site just as the sun poked through the clouds. The weather was looking much better! I should have immediately knocked on some wood after thinking this though because I was in for it overnight.
Once getting my gear up on top of the big cliff of the island site 221, I was immediately happy with my booking. What a site! It had a nice rocky entry into the lake, which was good for swimming, and was high up off the water, nestled in a lovely stand of pines. It had nice east-facing views of site 222 and the northeastern bay.
After setting up camp, taking a dip in the lake and making dinner, I settled into a cup of whiskey and watched the nightfall.
It began clouding up again and I decided to check my phone to see if I had service. Oddly, I did, because I didn't earlier in the day on Rathbun, Checking the weather was not a great thing to do, because it was a cause for concern. There was a 90% chance of serious thunderstorms all night and the following day. My kayak friends on North Rathbun were not wrong.
I set up a tarp over the tent and felled a widow-maker (a standing dead tree, that upon falling, crushes the inhabitants below) that was in potential range of my tent.
The wind began picking up and it began raining. I called it a night and crawled into my tent. It stormed most of the night. The wind was strong and the flapping tarp kept me up most of the night. It was an unsettling experience, even though I didn't feel I was getting the main brunt of the storm.
At 5:30 am I checked the weather again and it was looking glum for the remainder of the day. My original plan was to relax and spend the morning and early afternoon fishing and exploring the rest of Serpentine, neighbouring Rock Lake and make it back home by early evening. As the sun began to rise, the wind died down and the rain went from a downpour to a drizzle. I decided to break camp and head out early while the getting was good. The thought of paddling the length of Anstruther on the way out in stormy weather was foremost on my mind, so I thought it might be better to go while it was calm for a while.
Day 2 - Serpentine Lake to Anstruther Lake
Shortly after daybreak, I was packed up. I made my way across the small bay next to my site and began taking the short portage to Copper Lake.
At the other end, I put in on a creek that winds through a marshy wetland toward Copper Lake. It was a lovely part of the trip.
Being early enough, I was hoping to spot a moose. It is rare to see them this far south, but apparently, there are moose in the Kawartha Highlands.
At the time of paddling this creek, I originally thought that the creek was choked with purple loosestrife, a horrible invasive species from Europe that is overtaking many wetland areas of Ontario and drastically reducing biodiversity. However, a reader of this blog commented that the plant is Pickerel Weed, a plant native to Ontario. I certainly hope that is the case because it seems that Purple Loosestrife is becoming nasty in some areas.
From there, a steep 370m portage followed Anstruther Creek through a dark and dense forest. I was happy to be going down on this one. Putting in on the other end, I snapped a quick photo of the incredible wetlands I was about to move through.
Paddling it, I was amazed at the wide variety of birdlife inhabiting the area. I managed to sneak up fairly close to a rather large Great Blue Heron. Getting close, one can understand how birds can be descendants of dinosaurs. This thing was a pterodactyl.
At the end of the creek, there was a rocky 200m portage that ascended over a ridge, adjacent to the very pretty Anstruther Falls. I managed to snap a quick photo of the falls through the trees on my return trip for my canoe.
At the base of the falls, I put in and found myself back on Rathbun. From there, it's a 15-minute paddle back to the portage down to Anstruther and then another one-hour paddle back to the parking lot. Luckily, the rain was kept to a drizzle and there was very little wind to fight on the way home.
In the end, my decision to come out early was probably the right one. I left my site at dawn and was pulling into my driveway by lunchtime ahead of any potential storms that were being predicted. Though the weather stopped me from spending more of the day in the beautiful northeast corner of Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, I got to experience the area in solitude and tranquillity before the rest of the world had woken up. It was a wonderful experience and it made me feel so lucky to have such a gorgeous pocket of wilderness so close to my home.